Travel is the state of being homeless; we should welcome the opportunity it gives us to live nowhere. –Barbara Sjoholm
We now find our heroine sitting in an old farmhouse in northwestern Tuscany, complete with vineyard, swimming pool, five children, scrumptious homemade food, and a mountain view that is nothing short of stunning. This little village is so small and remote, you won’t even find it on a map, and the chance of running into tourists is about zero.
A few days ago, I recalled a moment from last winter, when I was in Costa Rica. We had just arrived at Rancho Margot, a sustainable, education and adventure-based ranch, and as I took in the gorgeous jungle scenery for the first time, I turned to Elizabeth and said Thank you for bringing me here! And here, now, I repeated these words to myself, while mesmerized by the snowy peaks surrounding the house, while enjoying meal after wonderful meal, and while hearing this lovely Irish family describe their travels and inspiring experiences. Such stories! I have sat in rapture on more than one occasion after dinner, sipping wine and getting ideas for the next time I travel.
It’s been nine days so far, and there have been so many potential posts, things I’m constantly saying I need to blog about this!, and of course the Internet connection comes and goes. So now I find myself with the dilemma of too many things to share- all about the food, for example? The best pizza ever, topped with eggplant and garlic? The amazing over-satisfying lunch we had two days ago in the village of Castiglione, waited on by the chef himself, the eight of us barely able to squeeze in to the dining room? At home: soups and pastas and Irish porridge and only the best local wine?
Or perhaps I should dedicate a whole post to the rambunctious party we attended last Sunday, the food and wine seemingly in endless supply, the dancing bordering on maniacal, the guests all hilarious and welcoming. Then there’s the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage across Spain that both Colm and Adi (husband and wife hosts) have done, both alone. They swear that this walk is nothing short of life changing, and I’m listening wondering when and how soon I can do it myself. We have been to a ski resort, played in lots of dirt, competed against each other in Scrabble, and gone on many a hilly hike either up or down to the nearest villages.
To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted. —Bill Bryson
I will ponder on all these things, finish my hot chocolate, and then get back to putting compost down on the olive trees. Then I might actually get into specifics and give you guys more than just a photo-filled teaser post. Ah, but for your loyalty, I shall bestow upon you one more picture! Did I happen to mention that while I was digging in the garden two days ago, I unexpectedly came across some old animal bones? Not just any bones, either- some teeth that probably belonged to a wolf. Oh so exciting! I felt like I was back in Germany in 2005, excavating 12th century artifacts. This is one of those times when it’s quite easy to do something new or different every day, and I’m liking it.
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance. –Alan Watts
Travel intensifies the elements of a person’s nature- both fine and toxic- making them stand out more starkly than they ever do in the safe, regulated environment of home. When I travel alone, I can give the whole mixed bag full rein, without monitoring myself, making compromises, negotiating, or even talking. I am somehow better able to tap my thoughts and feelings. It is as if the stage clears, the background music fades, and I come forward. –Susan Spano
Okay guys, so listen. I’m not here to tell you all about the glamour of travel and how it’s blissful every minute. I’m also not saying it’s easy, or “better” than staying at home. In fact, solo traveling- and let’s insert “budget” into that description as well- is pretty much the opposite of all that. Sure, it’s fun and adventurous and inspiring and mind-expanding, but it’s also one of the most frustrating endeavors. It’s feeling as though no is on your side; it’s filled with body aches and ailing feet and not enough sleep and paying over a dollar just to use a bathroom. Just as when I first arrived in Bologna, my first two days in Florence proved to be a series of moments that I can’t wait to look back on and laugh over.
The SNAFUs began with my train ride from Bologna to here. I had intended to take the cheaper, 10 euro train that also took a moreslow, scenic route down into Tucany. Well, I somehow forgot about that whole notion and when I was standing at the ticket machine I booked the next available train. “Oh, this is one of the nice Eurostars!” I said to myself as I boarded, and to my dismay, a few minutes after we left the station we descended underground. Why would you want to sit on a nice comfortable train and stare out at zooming blackness as opposed to gorgeous countryside?? I lamented this in my journal, bemoaning that faster is not at all better, and at least contended that it would be nice to arrive in Florence while tt was still light out.
My hostel, booked for only the first night in the city, was colorful and expansive as promised, its walls filled with drawings, scribbling and notes left from other backpackers (in addition to beautiful murals and frescoes) I happily took part in my free dinner of a personal thin crust pizza with peppers and olives ( having craved pizza for nearly two weeks, I eschewed the other two choices of pasta or a salad) and then headed toward the historical center of town to explore. I’m pretty sure I knew I wanted a gelato or some such dessert, and I certainly hadn’t paid anything over 3 euros on my previous gelaterie visits. But of course, I found myself wandering through an overcrowded, tourist-filled area near the Duomo and so everything was more expensive. Also, I spotted and was immediately drawn to a little shop that not only sold gelato, but waffles, too. Ahh! The image of the cold, creamy milky gelato sitting atop the crispy, freshly made waffle was enough to block everything else from my mind. Plus they had my favorite flavor, strachiatella, first discovered on my first trip to Italy on a high school trip and not enjoyed since! I was sold. Then, to my surprise, The woman behind the counter even topped the gelato with *another* waffle on top, making a sweet, delightful dessert sandwich! I’m sure my eyes were at their widest and the tiniest bit of drool was collecting at the corner of my mouth. “10 euros”, she pronounced, and I had a second of hesitation but of course there my treat was, hypnotizing me and any rationale I’d previously possessed. I handed over my money and quickly found somewhere to sit down in order to properly enjoy the extravagance I’d bestowed upon myself. I settled on some steps opposite Giotto’s Campanile (the bell tower), and was so enraptured that I didn’t even think to take a picture until I was down to one waffle! I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads in disappointment and surprise, me, who doesn’t even let other people eat until I’ve photographed their plates! But it was soooooo delicious, and the gelato was melting along the sides and I had to lick it up, and here you go, that one (terribly lit) picture I was able to get:
So my friends, this is the beauty of traveling alone and being anonymous. You can make these ridiculous mistakes and laugh, and there’s no one there to make you feel even worse about it. You can shrug off whatever it is even faster. You can sit down in a historic piazza and make a mess of yourself as you attempt to eat your dessert with some amount of grace (and then give up). I smiled as I looked down on the cobblestone when I was done and saw all the white drops that I had left behind from my dripping gelato, and felt my stomach gurgling in satisfaction. Often I’ve said to myself, It doesn’t matter, I’m not going to care what anyone here thinks of me, and it’s a mantra that has worked pretty well so far. It worked when I broke my glasses in Bologna and I was walking around like a pirate, able to see clearly out of only one eye, and it’s working quite well here in Florence where I am allowing myself to spend a couple of hours in one cafe, taking advantage of their wifi when I am feeling lonely and disconnected from those I love. (That being said, I think my next post might be about the re-appreciation of home that travel inevitably brings).
One last point: I’ve noticed that I have said in multiple posts “Travel is this, it’s not this/difficulties/challenges/etc”. I realize this may be getting a bit repetitive, and I’m going to try and make the effort to highlight the positive from now on. This seems an especially vital task when my mood is low for more than two days, and my camera breaks and everything seems to be going wrong. This is a beautiful city– I love looking up and seeing all the arches and frescoes and statues everywhere, the detail in the architecture that shows what the Renaissance was all about. I love how it seems the whole city is an outdoor museum, and everywhere you look there’s some other palazzo or church or public work of art to appreciate. I love the panoramic view from the Piazzale Michelangelo, all the delicious pastries I’ve eaten for breakfast, and the nice loft I’ve been sleeping in. And not fifteen minutes ago, in the cafe where I have been a regular for the past four days, the barista wrote Good Morning in chocolate syrup on top of my cappuccino. This touched me so much I almost started to cry. Here and now, I open myself up to more of those unexpected moments.
We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can. Everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. –Rainer Maria Rilke
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, the sky – all things tending toward the eternal or what we imagine of it.” -Cesare Pavese in The Comfort of Strangers
[This is a wonderfully accurate quote about travel except for one thing- sleep is one of those essential things that has on the whole proven difficult for me so far. I have allowed myself some leeway, given the six hour time difference, and this means opting to going to bed earlier rather than hitting the town with my hosts on some nights. Everything in moderation! ]
In the past five years, I have realized that travel isn’t for everyone. It’s uncomfortable and uncertain, unsettling and isolating. The only constant is knowing that the factors involved in your day-to-day life will not remain the same for long, and knowing this at least provides some comfort. Perhaps it is because of the unstoppable changes that traveling appeals to me; there is always something new to discover, a new person to meet, a great mural around the corner, or some food that for some reason I never knew about until now.
Enter the panzerotti.
I think that I am forever in debt to my host in Milan, Stefania, for introducing me to this culinary masterpiece. Wikipedia tells me that outside of Italy, the panzerotti is popular in the United States, particularly Southern New Jersey, which is news to me. I must have been concentrating too hard on the zeppoles, garlic knots and pizza to notice them on all those childhood vacations to the Jersey Shore. Back to Milan- Stefania told me that this particular place, Luini, just off the Piazza Duomo, is famous throughout the city and is known for nearly always having lines out the door, though she hadn’t been there yet herself. Why, what better reason to tackle something you’ve been putting off than showing your couchsurfing guest the best your hometown has to offer! True to rumor, the line was out the door and spilling on to the narrow cobblestone street. And as for the taste? Well, if you can, try to imagine biting into one of the most delicious plain doughnuts you’ve ever had. Now, combine that with the taste of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese- and how your taste buds will delight! Though it may sound like a strange combination at first, I immediately had another, this time filled with spinach and ricotta cheese. Subsequently, I also sampled a panzerotti in Bologna, which was still delicious but couldn’t compare to the high caliber Luini in Milan. And though I’m curious where and how soon I might find panzerotti back in the States, I know that it will be a far cry from any I eat here in Italy.
Another bready food item I’ve had is panetonne, somewhat similar to what we call fruitcake, though this is more palatable. Cliche as it sounds, I have had pasta every day so far (and even introduced my Bologna host to tossing eggplant, garlic and olive oil in pan and serving it with penne), and I treated myself to gelato twice while in Milan. The other morning, I visited Bologna’s fruit and vegetable market, eager to get some frutis and vegetables in my system. Though there were far too many options with all the exact same selection (terrible for someone as indecisive as I), I walked away satisfied with the prices and even hungrier than when I set out.
This is a photo I hastily took before i ate- both the eggs and spinach picked up at the city market. I’ve seen dark yolks before, and plenty of double-yolked ones, but these eggs were definitely the most orange I’ve ever cooked.
Now I am situated in Dozza, which is about half an hour from Bologna, with a family that keeps animals for consumption. You might be eating a lot of pasta and pesto for dinner, they said, when discussing my vegetarianism, but that is just fine with me. I’ve gone from couchsurfer to helper- doing various tasks around the house and with the animals in exchange for a place in their home and all meals provided for. My arrival here marks the 10th place that I have spent the night throughout the month of January, the most I have bounced around, ever, to my recollection. Here’s to feeling a bit settled!
A shot in Milan from Thursday (I will be sure to get better pictures of the Duomo and the rest of the city when I have a few more days at the end of my stay):